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Society honours Snowball Earth pioneer

Paul Hoffman at The Geological Society, delivering a guest lecture. Photo - Ted Nield

The Geological Society’s oldest and most prestigious award, the Wollaston Medal, has been awarded to Paul F. Hoffman, one of the major proponents of the controversial “Snowball Earth” theory, reports Sarah Day.

Geoscientist Online 27 January 2009

This theory suggests that in its early history the Earth suffered glaciations so major that it froze over completely. It remains controversial, but has proved extremely fruitful for our understanding of how the Earth system functioned many hundreds of millions of years ago.

In a 1998 paper, Hoffman proposed that a drop in the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere 750 million years ago caused a global fall in temperature that very nearly wiped out all life on Earth. Hoffman’s most significant impact on Earth science has arisen from his development of holistic models of geological processes during the Precambrian (c. 4500 – 542 million years ago). The scope of this subsequent work shows a remarkable interdisciplinary understanding, and stands as an exemplary model of how Earth science research should be conducted.

The Wollaston Medal (named for William Hyde Wollaston 1766-1828, the discoverer of the element Palladium, in which the medal is struck) was first awarded in 1831 to William Smith, known as “the father of English Geology”, who is credited with creating the first geological map of Britain. It was bestowed on Charles Darwin in 1859 - the same year in which On the Origin of Species was published. The award, made some months earlier, was given in recognition of Darwin’s “judicious and vigorous efforts on some of the harder problems of geology”.

Past recipients of the Wollaston also include Richard Owen, founder of the Natural History Museum in London; William Buckland, who published the first full description of what would later become known as the dinosaur, and Charles Lyell.

In addition to the Wollaston medal, the society made the following awards for 2009.
  • Wollaston Medal - Prof. Paul Hoffman (Harvard University)
  • Lyell Medal – Prof. Ian Nicholas McCave (Cambridge University)
  • Murchison Medal – Prof. David Kohlstedt (University of Minnesota)
  • William Smith Medal – Prof. Michael J Russell (NASA; JPL)
  • Coke Medal – Prof. Bruce Yardley (Leeds University)
  • Coke Medal – Prof. Jane Plant (Imperial College, London)
  • Bigsby Medal – Prof. Christian Turney (University of Exeter)
  • Sue Tyler Friedman – Prof. Philippe Taquet
  • R H Worth Prize – Dr Robert Antony Bryn Bazley
  • William Smith Fund – Dr David Selby (University of Durham)
  • Lyell Fund - Professor Colm ÓCofaigh (University of Durham)
  • Murchison Fund – Dr Howard Falcon-Lang (University of Bristol)
  • Distinguished Service Award – Dr Stuart Monro (Dynamic Earth)

The 2009 Awards will also include two President’s Awards, which will be announced later in the year. The Awards will be presented at President’s Day 2009, at Burlington House on June 3.

Lists of all previous recipients of the Society’s awards may be accessed here: